The Moving Men


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Matts story about his cycling in Argentina. Its well worht the read,

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The Moving Men

  1. 1. The Moving Men. The Concept of Home in Excerpts from my Time in Argentina.
  2. 2. The Journey . The idea for the trip was my father’s. He did not believe any eighteen- year-old boy could possibly be ready for college, so he suggested I take the year off and do something worthwhile with the valuable period of youth remaining to me. I asked him what sort of thing I should do. Well how about this: you and Cory buy a pair of bikes and ride them from La Quiaca on the northern border of Argentina, all the way down to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia. That is how as an eager young student ready to go off to university and mummify himself in books wound up losing his home instead. By the time I would get back to my family’s house on Middle Rd., Falmouth, Maine 04105, U.S.A. I would no longer know how to sleep in one bed every night. I would not be used to watching the same flowers grow day after day as opposed to taking in local flora at a moment in time, in passing. My idea of time would have changed from that of the static growth of an oak tree to the passing of distance, to the slow death of kilometer after kilometer. Cory and I seized the idea. We worked all summer to buy equipment and bicycles and plane tickets, and October saw us flying to another hemisphere with six pairs of socks, three shirts, one pair of pants, three sets of riding uniforms each, more a stove, a tent, two sleeping bags, and a length of rope all stuffed into heavy panniers and mounted on our Surly brand Cyclocross bikes. We knew we would ride, but we did not know much else. 2
  3. 3. Cafayate. We rode into Cafayate on the fringe of a magnificent desert rainfall that would be the town’s first precipitation of the year. We beat the storm by about a half an hour and managed to find a hostel before it even started to drizzle. We then decided to go and find something to eat, since it had been a long day of riding and a hot one. At this point, we were about 9 days of riding south of La Quiaca. We had done the 600 kilometer stretch between La Quiaca and our base camp in the city of Salta in 6 days, even daring to brave the hellish pass of La Cuesta de Lipán at a height of 4,130 meters. We were now 3 days of riding south of Salta, where the majority of my family lives, and our next stop was our final destination, as simple as that. Our only obligation was to make sure we got back to Buenos Aires for our flight in April. We were thinking about these things while we ate in a small restaurant on the plaza when the clouds simply let loose. Within a few minutes the torrents had turned the streets into rivers with desert sand for silt. It took us a while to get back to the hostel since the only shoes we had apart from our biking shoes were our cloth alpargatas, and unlike the children and stray dogs, we were somewhat dainty about getting our feet wet. When we got back to the hostel, we found in the narrow hallway a gigantic BMW motorcycle which had not been there before. This was how we met the first of the moving men. It turned out to belong to a Bostonian who was staying in the hostel. He had been working in real estate in Utah before his fiancé dumped him and at that point, he had to face a decision. He could either make good money continuing in real estate, or he could get on his bike and never come back. The Bostonian had opted for the latter and had travelled through Latin America and South America before meeting us in that hostel, and when we did meet him he was badly drunk on two bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon that the region is so famous for. We talked politics. The Bostonian firmly believed that George Bush was evil and had killed a lot of innocent people, and that there should be a civil war to kill the ignorant people who voted for him. He was aiming to make Ushuaia by Christmas. We would hear of him once more on the road, and then never again The next day, while Cory helped The Bostonian to adjust the breaks on his BMW, I met another migrant. Her name was Sarah, and she was from Texas. She was the one who initiated us by giving us her copy of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I made sure to have her sign the inside of the cover, right above the stamp of a butterfly in purple, denoting the Buenos Aires Book Cooperative. 3
  4. 4. We met many other movers in that hostel, including a group of Spanish students and a couple of Frenchmen, but unfortunately there is only so much room. So I leave them, as well as the good hearted hostel owners and their friend, El Marinero, who provided such a perfect environment for transients, to another time. Mendoza Or Bust. We had our hearts set on making Mendoza by Christmas, and we were desperate to do it. The 2000 or so kilometers between Cafayate and Mendoza ran through brutal tracks of flat desert with glaring sun from seven in the morning until nine-thirty at night. We met almost no other travelers, and the towns which were supposed to be full of people seemed barren. The exceptions to this were the Magicians of Salicas. They welcomed us at the campground by making Cory levitate in a chair and showing him how to ride a bike backwards, and also telling us about a man who had ridden through on a big BMW. Later they came back to share with us a bottle of Fernet and a handful of dirty jokes, which I carefully translated for him. That night we also made friends with a little stray pup who Cory named affectionately “Doguito”. By the time we were two weeks south of Salta and with one more to go before Mendoza, we were tired. Tired of the straight, unending road, tired of the heat, tired of rice and pasta, tired of the tent. As if to compound these things, we ran into two dust storms. The first one we tried to bike through, having only 15 kilometers until the next town and not realizing that we would be slowed to about five kilometers an hour in the wind and dust. Fortunately we made a gas station and scared the beer drinking locals by coming in covered in dust and ordering the coldest Quilmes they had. The second dust storm came upon us in the night and nearly destroyed our tent, which we had to take down in the dark of pre-dawn while being pelted with sand and also large, hairy, desert spiders. But even in this time of tribulation, we still received a message from other moving men. A simple, misspelled piece of friendly advice scribbled on a sign-map: Bikers, take this way, its easier. 4
  5. 5. It was at this point in the trip that I took up translating Pablo Neruda’s poetry in my journal in the evenings. I didn’t know it then, but I was contributing to a theme of encouragement which would play out through the trip. We got to Mendoza in time for Christmas, and my cousin Piojo (lit. “flea”) took us into his apartment for ten days over Christmas. He greeted us with beds, baths, and beer. It was a wonderful time of rest, and a good time to reevaluate the trip. We decided before we left that we would cease our slavish worship of the 70-90 kilometer day, and that we would take a bus once in a while if we thought we needed it. Piojo bid us farewell and helped us load our bikes again as we continued south. Piojo, the consummate bachelor who would soon move back to Salta, become engaged, and be married in October of 2009. The same month, two years later, that we started our journey. The Seven Lakes Region. As we approached the Seven Lakes Region we began to encounter more people, since most Argentine students chose to travel for the holidays. Among these were Botella de Whiskey and his band, who had a song about their bottle of whiskey. We also met the legendary Rich Pain. We first met him on the road, a nasty stretch of unpaved gravel between San Martin De Los Andes and Villa La Angostura. Later we met him at one of the overpriced tourist campgrounds in town. We were both outraged at the prices, and decided to find a place to bivouac together. As it turned out, Rich Pain had left his home in Derbyshire 6 years previously. He had biked through Europe, parts of Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, Alaska, and Canada before he ran out of money. At that point he became a dishwasher for 6 months. Then he continued down the west coast of the United States and then south through all of Latin America to meet us in Angostura. His destination, like ours, was Ushuaia. We talked a lot to Rich Pain about being a moving man. It turned out he left home because he hated people. “I can’t stand the people at Uni. I can’t stand anybody, really. When I’m riding, I don’t have to deal with them, right?” Rich shared a good deal of beer with us that night and then slept in our tent. He also traded us our copy of The Quiet American for his copy of The Kite Runner. We were beginning to understand that a true moving man always had a book to trade. We lost track of Rich Pain for a while after that, though by word of other bikers, he was always either a couple days ahead of us or a couple behind. 5
  6. 6. Into Chile. Shortly before we decided to cross into Chile, we found a poem at the summit of a pass. It was not by Neruda, but I felt the power of the talisman I had evoked and was confidant that we would run into luck. I was proven correct. On our second day in Chile we rolled into the town of Santa Lucia. While looking for groceries, we encountered another biker wearing a long billed hat. This turned out to be Tim from Virginia. He invited us over to have lunch with him and another biker who turned out to be Darrel the Englishman. After about 15 minutes three more bikers arrived from the north, named Nick, Steve, and Shana. We named them collectively “the American Vegan Anarchists (AVAs)”. Last but not least was a man riding a blaze orange Giant. This was Vlad the Switzer, later to be known, for unprintable reasons, as “The Package”. We were all heading south, so we rode and camped together, played cards and swapped stories. Occasionally we’d take a break on the road and either Steve or Nick would read aloud from I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. Just because you must carry books as a moving man does not mean they have to be good. Each party had an interesting story. Tim did a bike tour every year, and he had been everywhere including Jamaica and Northern Africa. Vlad had been an executive for a Swiss company in Uruguay. His superiors in Europe told him he had to come back, and so he quit, bought a bike, and lit out. The AVAs all worked in a bike shop famous for fueling the professional race circuit in the US (Cory loved that). Darrel was planning to break a Guinness World Record by rollerblading around the world, pushing his back-packing gear ahead of him in a modified baby-stroller. I remember the time that we rode together, before people started to split off, as the time of the Magnificent Eight. It was a very lucky time. No matter what happened— road construction, blown out tires, lack of money— we managed to pull through. Also, even though it was the rainy season in Chile, we hadn’t a single day of rain. I was confident our luck would keep up, since I found painted on a wall in Chile Neruda’s “Galope Muerto”. 6
  7. 7. Eventually however, the Eight broke up, taking different routes, travelling at different speeds. The last person we lost was Vlad. We decided, after we re- crossed the border into Argentina, that we would take a bus to El Chaltén since it was a four or five day ride on unpaved roads without a town or water source marked on the map. The most water we could carry was three days worth. Vlad, on the other hand, swore he could ride it, so we said good-bye to him and boarded the bus. El Chaltén. We arrived in El Chaltén before dawn. El Chaltén had recently been named the back-packing capital of Argentina and so it was a rapidly blossoming tourist town. That meant that while there were some stunning hikes, the place was also full of rich tourists who could afford to eat in the expensive tourist restaurants. We stayed on the southern side of town in a free campground, where the bathroom was a small shed erected over a five foot deep hole in the ground. We hiked during the day, came back and bought groceries for dinner, and partly because of the bathrooms at the campground, and partly in retaliation for the excessive prices of the restaurants, we would then sneak into a restaurant to use their bathroom, which were For Customers Only. One time when I was trying to walk quickly out of the restaurant after illegally doing my duty, I saw a table of German tourists beckoning me to their table. One of them, an older gentleman, then offered me a slice of their pizza. Then down the table another one gave me a slice of pizza. I was thanking them, rather confused, when one of the women piped up: “it’s better than eating garbage, isn’t it?” I held my laughter until I was outside and handed Cory his slice. We started back for the campground waving to the Germans, carrying our kilo and a half of bread, kilo of fresh vegetables, half kilo of beef, and our two liters of cheap wine. We made stir-fry that night and laughed ourselves silly. The next day we took a hike and saw Mt. Fitz Roy and Glaciar Grande, feeling like we had the better of all of them. 7
  8. 8. El Calafate, The Reunion. The southern winds were picking up as we approached El Calafate. The Perito Moreno Glacier, for which the town is famous was some 60 kilometers west of the town, directly into the wind. So we took a couple of days of rest and made friends with John the Welshman, who had pitched his tent next to ours. John the Welshman, divorced, father of two, was backpacking while he still could. He was also an ex-hippie, and forever endeared himself to us for his knowledge of good music and his stories from the acid era. He also missed barbecues, so we split on a few kilo’s of meat, some fresh vegetables, nine liters of beer and a couple bottles of wine, and we stayed up all night eating, drinking, trading jokes and stories. At the end of the night, he traded us a copy of American Gods for The Kite Runner, and in the morning he packed up and headed off to the glacier. We were at the grocery store returning bottles and buying supplies to make a try for the glacier when all of a sudden we saw Steve and Nick of the AVAs ride by heading west. We shouted at them but they didn’t hear us. We knew Shana would be close behind so we waited and got her attention before she could pass. She told us they were looking for campgrounds and that Vlad was not far behind either. Eventually came the Orange Giant, and Vlad jumped off and immediately embraced us. It turned out Tim was also only about a half-hour behind Vlad. So we all waited on the main street (Nick and Steve had returned looking for Shana) and when he got in off of the road, we were all there to shake his hand and hand him a beer. That night we all went out to an all-you-can-eat buffet and stayed in the same campground. The next day we decided to damn the wind, and we split renting a car to go out to the glacier. 8
  9. 9. To Punta Arenas, The Last Leg. When we left El Calafate, we said good-bye to Vlad, who was still curled up in his tent and refused to go further south. We rode now with the AVAs and Tim From Virginia. After we visited the National Park of the Torres Del Paine, Tim also left us. The AVAs, Cory and I headed south to Punta Arenas to try and catch a ferry across the Beagle Channel to Puerto Williams, the southernmost permanently inhabited town in the world. We stayed for several days in the yard of a small hostel in the red light district of Punta Arenas. Those were easy days with little to do accept hope that a couple seats on the ferry would open up, which, the owner of the hostel assured, they would, but not until the day the ferry sailed. Apparently a lot of people booked and then did not confirm. It was a full hostel with all sorts of interesting people. The proprietor was a friendly, helpful man we lovingly named “Snaggletooth” for the rather alarming canine that stuck out the front of his mouth. Apart from him there was an American girl from Boston, on vacation from school in Santiago. There was also a gaggle of beautiful Catalonian girls. But by far the most interesting of all was Crazy Marcos, the Belgian Biker. Marcos did his riding, he told us, at a steady pace of thirty kilometers a day. He carried his gear in a broken touring setup, so that he was obliged to tie plastic shopping bags directly to his bike. He wore pink flowered flip-flops over his wool socks. He was also homeless. He explained to us that he managed to travel because he got a check from the Belgian government every month because he was homeless, and that it was plenty of money to eat cheaply and travel by bike. I was awed after meeting him. This manner of clever asceticism seemed the pinnacle of what it meant to be a moving man. Snaggletooth turned out to know precisely what he was talking about. On the morning before the ferry was to depart, we received a call from the company saying that half of the reservations had just opened up. So we loaded up the bikes and made our way across town to the pier, and for the first time in our stay in Chile, it began seriously to rain. 9
  10. 10. Puerto Williams. We never got to say good-bye to the AVAs, our only remaining companions. We returned to camp one day to find their tents were gone, and there was a note saying they had gotten a ride to Ushuaia on an Alaskan boat. You see, the only consistent ferry that runs from the Isla Navarino on which Puerto Williams is located, to Ushuaia, and that ferry would have cost us $125 a piece, plus charges for the bikes. The fact was we did not have those means. So we set up a hermitage on the hill above town and we frequented the yacht club (where I got a free copy of The Bridges of Madison County), where sailors from around the world collected to cross the Drake Passage and ply the Antarctic. The word was that you could get a cheap ride across the channel in one of these private boats, and the AVAs beat us to the punch and had to leave suddenly. Fortunately for us, we found Tommy, the ship’s manager for a beautiful wooden boat which shall remain nameless for now. He agreed to give us a ride across if we could meet him in Puerto Navarino on Wednesday. That was how we came to saddle up one last time on Tuesday and ride those final 55 kilometers, and the following morning we ate our last camp-stove breakfast and watched the vessel of our delivery as it rotated, slowly, moored out in the cove. That was how we came to meet Pat Shaw, John Wimble- ton, Don Jorge, and Don Miguel. The latter two owned the boat (and half of Punta Arenas), and the former two owned an adven- ture tourism franchise and they were trying to negotiate a deal. We made the crossing to our final destination in their company telling them the stories of our journey. That was how John Wimbleton and Pat Shaw came to the decision to have us stay as their guests in a four-star hotel, and come out to eat with them at a five-star restaurant, and to have drinks with them afterwards. When I asked John Wimbleton why, he told me it was because he had once been a moving man too. The name of the ship, by the way, was Victory. 10
  11. 11. Ushuaia, an Epilogue. We were trying to find the bus station in Ushuaia when Invierno en el sur, a caballo we heard a shout. We looked over our shoulders and Yo he traspasado la corteza mil speeding across the parking lot of the gas station there veces agredidas por los golpes australes: was a wild-looking biker, shouting with all his breath. It he sentido el cogote del caballo dormirse was Rich Pain. bajo la piedra fría de la noche del Sur, tiritar en la brújula del monte deshojado, After we finished catching up, comparing notes on our ascender en la pálida mejilla que comienza: yo conozco el final del galope en la niebla, relative journeys, he told us how disappointed he was to el harapo del pobre caminante: be done. y para mí no hay dios sino la arena oscura, el lomo interminable de la piedra y la noche, “I don’t think I can ever go back, mates,” he said. “I el insociable día don’t think I could get on. I’m not cut out for normal so- con un advenimiento de mala ropa, de alma exterminada. ciety. But I can’t keep doing this. I’ve run out of places to bike.” Winter in the south, on horseback We drank with him through the night while we waited by the parking lot, which turned out to be where the busses I have crossed the crust a thousand stopped. For the second time tourists, Japanese this time, times assaulted by the southern blows: I have felt the nape of the horse sleeping gave us their left-over pizza, and by the end Rich had de- beneath the cold stone of the night of the South, cided that he would go home and try doing some long shivering in the compass of the defoliated mount, walks. He then asked if we had any books, and that was ascending the pallid cheek which commences: how I came to trade him The Bridges of Madison County I know the end of a gallop amidst the cloud, for the same copy of The Quiet American we had origi- the rags of the poor traveler: and for me there is no god if not the dark sand, nally traded to him. I opened the cover and had him sign the interminable loin of the stone and the night, it. Right above the purple butterfly. the unsociable day with the advent Later, on the bus, I found the translation I had done of the of bad clothing, of an exterminated soul. Neruda Poem, “Invierno en el Sur, a Caballo.” I present it for you here, probably with errors. 11